James Brown - vocals; Maceo Parker - tenor sax, alto sax; Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis - tenor sax, alto sax; Fred Wesley - trombone; St. Clair Pinckney - baritone sax; Richard "Kush" Griffith - trumpet; Joe Davis - trumpet; Jimmy Nolen - guitar; Alphonso "Country" Kellum - guitar; Bobby Byrd - organ, stage announcer; Charles Sherrell - bass; Clyde Stubblefield - drums
The jazz police had a field day with the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, which marked George Wein's blatant capitulation to the burgeoning rock market. While the usual names like Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Phil Woods, Charles Mingus and Anita O'Day were on hand to represent the jazz contingent, a whole host of arena rock bands were booked for the annual summer bash in Rhode Island. In its coverage that year, Down Beat ran the cover line: "Big Crowds, Bad Vibes." And in his report on the festival, respected jazz writer Ira Gitler referred to the whole affair as "the Newport Jive Festival." As he wrote: "George Wein started out as a jazz person but now seems to have become a festival producer rather than a jazz producer." Gitler dismissed headliners like Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention ("a contemporary vaudeville show") and Led Zeppelin ("a lead balloon") as well as John Mayall, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck and Sly Stone. Gitler's colleague Dan Morgenstern also had little use for the rock acts, though he was considerably kinder to James Brown. As he wrote: "This was the most professional presentation of the festival, running smoothly from start to finish."
Indeed, it was the James Brown Show, a classy production replete with opening act (the Dee Felice piano trio), polished choreography, comedic relief (in the form of Nipsey Russell) and a dynamic, tightly-executed set in which the Hardest Working Man in Show Business trotted out hit after hit.
The James Brown Band warms up the stage with three instrumentals that highlight the tight two-guitar interplay of Jimmy Nolen's agile, syncopated single-note lines and Alphonso "Country" Kellum's steady rhythm playing along with the urgent, soulful blowing of tenor saxophonist Maceo Parker, Brown's right-hand man since 1964. On the third piece, the group reveals a decided jazz influence by covering Duke Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used To Be," which gives baritone saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney a chance to stretch out. Following a resplendent introduction ("Now…here's the star of the show!!"), Brown enters and immediately launches into a rousing rendition of "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," his hit single from 1968. In such a politically-charged climate - Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated the previous year and Black Power was on the rise - this anthemic tune infused an entire race with a sense of pride that had been lacking.
Shifting gears from churning funk to sublime ballad, Brown and company settle into a heartfelt rendition of "If I Ruled the World," another hit single from 1968 that showcases the expressive power of the Godfather's impassioned vocals. Without missing a beat, they segue neatly into a rousing, hard-driving shuffle version of "Kansas City," which Brown had released as a single in 1967. As he leaves the stage, announcer Bobby Byrd informs the Newport audience, "Keep in mind that the star of the show will be back." During the break, comedian Nipsey Russell entertained the crowd with his trademark observations and hip rhyming couplets.
Soul Brother Number One returns to the stage to the strains of an ultra-funky "Licking Stick," another of his hit singles from 1968. With uncanny precision, the band pivots on a downbeat to the plaintive, organ-fueled ballad "Try Me," which Brown had introduced ten years earlier in 1959. Promptly shifting gears once again, they head into another percolating bit of funk in "There Was a Time," another hit single from Brown's incredibly prolific year of 1968.
"Give It Up Or Turn It Loose," a recent single release by Brown, is underscored by a staccato guitar motif by Nolen and a bubbling bass line by Sherrell. The horns float in and out of the mix before the whole band comes together with a crisp punch on the funky bridge. One can easily hear the influence that this infectious groove had on Nigerian Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti, whose Africa '70s band resonates with these same kinds of urgently funky grooves.
Turning back to balladeer, Brown delivers a profound reading of his 1966 hit, "This is A Man's Man's Man's World," before delving into his cathartic, show-stopping number "Please, Please, Please (Don't Go)," which culminates in his signature "cape routine" where he falls to his knees in mock exhaustion before being covered with a cape and slowly led off stage by Bobby Byrd, only to throw off the cape and dash back to the microphone to deliver another round of bone-chilling screams. This bit is repeated a few times before Brown finally relents and shuffles into the wings like a championship boxer after a particularly trying fight.
Byrd shouts out an ecstatic farewell to the crowd ("The star of the show ladies and gentlemen, James Brown!") before Mr. Dynamite returns to the stage once again for an energized take on another 1968 hit, "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)," which segues smoothly into his current hit single of the day, "Mother Popcorn." Essentially a variation on his 1967 hit "Cold Sweat," this new number not only introduced a new dance craze but also kept the 36-year-old legend relevant with the young people, particularly black audiences of the day. It is underscored by Nolen's slinky, syncopated guitar lines and punctuated by exceptionally tight horn pads. Midway through this funk throwdown, Brown calls out, "Maceo, come blow your horn," and the saxophonist obliges with another of his signature punchy alto solos. After a lengthy and ecstatic ovation from the Newport crowd, Brown and company return for a rousing encore of "Mother Popcorn." And once again, Maceo does indeed blow his horn.
Though both Down Beat and Rolling Stone proclaimed Wein's rock experiment at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival a "disaster," James Brown's appearance there was an unequivocal triumph. This document of that memorable Sunday afternoon set on July 6th stands as a welcome addition to the legendary Godfather of Soul's remarkable recorded legacy.